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Challenge of 9/11 strengthened
Southern Baptist Disaster Relief

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–Mickey Caison remembers the bright, sunny morning of Tues., Sept.11, 2001, all too well.

After the first passenger jet hit the World Trade Center’s north tower, a crowd of North American Mission Board employees packed into his office. While they were watching the news on Caison’s small TV set, the second jetliner tore into the south tower.

“We immediately decided to open NAMB’s Disaster Operations Center,” said Caison, NAMB’s adult volunteer mobilization manager. “Then we made a decision with the American Red Cross that we would begin to activate and deploy many of Southern Baptists’ kitchen units.”

Since America’s airports were shut down, Caison and his team left NAMB’s offices in Alpharetta, Ga., about 3:30 p.m. by car and drove into New York City as the sun came up on Sept. 12. Because of the congestion and high security, it took until noon for them to get into Manhattan, where they went directly to the Metro New York Baptist Association.

“The next day, we had four Southern Baptist kitchens feeding New York’s policemen, firemen, other emergency responders, steelworkers, crane operators and other contractors,” Caison said.

Within days, shower units were on the scene in Manhattan, and a North Carolina-based kitchen unit was busy feeding workers in Washington, D.C., where hijackers had crashed another jetliner into the Pentagon.

Before the 9/11 response was over, Southern Baptist disaster relief crews would work 20,000 volunteer-days over 319 days, serve more than a million meals, clean 643 apartments, provide daycare for 850 children, provide 11,500 showers for workers and volunteers, wash 782 loads of laundry and distribute more than 21,000 teddy bears to scared New York children.

And nearly 100 Baptist chaplains would counsel shocked and grieving New Yorkers.

“Our lead chaplain was Joe Williams, a retired FBI chaplain who had served in Oklahoma City following the bombing of the federal building there in April 1995,” Caison said. “Joe ministered for 18 months in New York City after 9/11.”

The apartment-cleaning ministry started at the request of the emergency management office of then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

“The idea came up when we were talking to the mayor’s office,” Caison recalled. “His representatives told us they knew we would do it right, that our chaplains would counsel and talk to the apartment tenants, and that we would do crisis intervention. And the tenants also knew they would be safe and could trust us.”

Caison said he personally talked to some apartment residents who actually stayed in their closets for days, believing there had been a nuclear attack. After all, the sky had gone dark for hours in south Manhattan on 9/11 because of the ash and debris from the fallen towers.

“Some apartments in the Ground Zero area were covered with a half-inch layer of concrete dust,” Caison said. “We used our mud-out application. We had our people put on Tyvex suits with masks because we were worried about lead-based paints and asbestos. Working closely with the EPA and the New York Health Department, we required our folks to use vacuums with HEPA filters.”

Starting a few weeks after 9/11 and for two months, Southern Baptist volunteers cleaned and dusted every corner, every knick-knack, every book and every shelf of 643 apartments through December 2002, garnering a feature in The New York Times.

How did the disaster relief teams choose which apartments to clean?

“We started at the Gateway Apartments at Ground Zero,” Caison said. “People filled out applications asking for our help. We then branched out, staying within the impact zone below Canal Street on the southern tip of Manhattan.”

Baptists wearing their trademark yellow disaster relief T-shirts suddenly became quasi-celebrities in the Big Apple.

“Because the local TV stations would do news stories on what we were doing, people in New York started recognizing us by our yellow T-shirts,” Caison recounted. “When you were on a train or subway, people would come up and thank you for being there for New York. If volunteers went to tour the Empire State Building on their day off, folks would let them go to the front of the line or give discounts.”

Southern Baptist volunteers stayed in the “brig” — a collection of former jail cells at the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard — during their weeks of service in New York.

“This was only the second time we had done disaster relief at a crime scene, the other being Oklahoma City,” Caison said. “That puts a new slant on everything. We had to give our people special ID badges, orientations and training on how to do the job. We transported them to Manhattan from Brooklyn by subway. Our trucks would bring in supplies to them at the worksites.”

Caison said 9/11 was a real-time learning experience for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief that would pay dividends down the line.

“We learned that our advance disaster relief training was invaluable because it builds an expectation of how to respond in an emergency. Because of the training we had done, transitions were seamless and transparent when one state relieved another. It was not difficult to keep the operation going smoothly. But we learned that we had to do even more efficient and effective training.” The need to train and develop even more disaster relief chaplains also became apparent, Caison said.

“Our pool of volunteers was a great asset,” Caison said, noting that in 2001 there were about 25,000 trained disaster volunteers in the Southern Baptist Convention.

“Today, the number of trained Southern Baptist disaster volunteers has climbed steadily to about 52,000 -– a direct result of 9/11. 9/11 created an awareness of what Southern Baptists do in times of disaster and, as a result, the number of both our volunteers and units has increased,” Caison said.

“But we always need more volunteers,” he said. “A significant number of our volunteers are senior citizens who need a break after five to seven days. We also need more mobile kitchens and shower units.”

Caison said the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief operation also is a victim of its own success because, today, “the expectations on us are greater. We’re expected to get to the scene quicker, stay longer and do more. But by and large, we’ve been able to do that.”

Sept. 11 also taught Caison and his disaster relief team the importance of teamwork.

“We gained a clearer understanding for the need of cooperation among NAMB, the state Baptist conventions and local associations,” he said. “In 9/11, 32 state Baptist conventions and associations stepped up to respond. This was phenomenal.” While NAMB provides the needed coordination, the state conventions and local associations handle most of the advance training, maintain the fleet of kitchens and shower units, help decide when to deploy and help set policy and procedures.

“One thing 9/11 and last year’s response to the hurricanes buys us is the respect of fellow volunteer agencies, fellow responders, emergency management and the government,” he said. “We’re now included in the plan up front. But with that respect comes responsibility.”

All disasters have a spiritual side, Caison noted. “People ask questions and wonder why it happened. Where was God in all of it? Why did He allow it to happen? They want to know who we are and why we’re there.

“Our volunteers have the opportunity to respond and to share the hope that is in Jesus Christ,” Caison said. “We don’t show up at a disaster and try to make Baptists out of all the victims or make them join our churches. We just want them to understand that our commitment is to Christ, and how the hope we have in Christ can also be their hope even in the midst of a disaster.”

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  • Mickey Noah